Proms 2018: Ēriks Ešenvalds – Shadow; Eve Risser – Furakèla (World Premières); Andrew Norman – Spiral (UK Première)

by 5:4
6 minutes read

A piece doesn’t have to be – in fact, can hardly be – all things to all people, but in the case of Shadow, by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds‘, one has to wonder if it has much if anything to offer a mature listener. This in itself is interesting precisely because of the fact that the driving force of the piece is a meditation on the implications of parental responsibility, using the words from Longfellow’s eponymous sonnet to contemplate the future and fate of one’s children. The words, as indicated by the poem’s opening line, are literally being said to oneself, so the ‘audience’ or object of these private ruminations is adult, while their subject is children.

Listening to Ešenvalds’ response to these words, premièred on 21 July by the BBC Proms Youth Choir conducted by Donald Runnicles, there’s a sense that the subject has taken such priority that they’ve subsumed the object. Or, to put it another way, that this short piece (which one might fancifully call “anthem for non-doomed youth”) is composed entirely with children in mind. They, surely, would respond best to the music’s basic harmonic primary colours, huddled homophonic movement and lullaby lilting, and its simple, playful echoes of its own phrases, garnished at two points with silver glitter. To anything other than the most undemanding adult ear, however, its mawkish, Whitacre-esque, candy-coated sentiments ring with all the truth, sincerity and personality of a Hallmark™ greeting card.

When a commission is for a relatively short duration, composers have to decide whether they’re going to chance their arm and explore a lot very quickly or instead focus on just a single idea. In his short orchestral work Spiral, given its UK première on 23 July by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Karina Canellakis, US composer Andrew Norman opts for the latter approach.

It has one of the most marvellously peculiar orchestral openings i’ve heard in a long while: a big, strained accent that immediately fades to nothing, the music proper emerging – slowly – from the void this accent has left behind (a void that the Royal Albert Hall audience’s contingent of bronchial delinquents tried hard to fill with their own contributions). Starting from an initial idea that he likens to a short, chopped up bow stroke, Norman sets up what he calls a “minimalist engine”, which takes shape around a repeated perfect fifth. This fifth moves from side to side somewhat as assorted oblique pitches swell around it, causing a complex build-up of activity, punctured by a loud bell at the end.

It’s short and simple, snappy and energetic, and despite occupying pretty familiar musical territory has some nicely unpredictable elements in its delivery – though (not that it matters very much) am i alone in hearing nothing in the piece that brings to mind a spiral?

“Caregiver” is the translation of the title of French composer Eve Risser‘s new work for solo harpsichord Furakèla, which received its first performance by Jean Rondeau at the Cadogan Hall also on 23 July. The title derives from Risser’s thoughts about Rondeau, who she says “is able to take good care of people through his playing.” Yet while care is certainly the first epithet that comes to mind when listening to Furakèla, it’s not a word that typifies the work as a whole.

In hindsight, the tentative opening notes that begin the piece seem like a red herring. Risser wastes little time in moving them along and beginning to make them feel connected, the music becoming more confident at an exponential rate. In seemingly no time at all, Rondeau is practically destroying the harpsichord, pounding out the material with such violence it sounds as though the instrument might fall apart at any moment, arriving at an almighty climax at around the halfway point. The trajectory to this point has been a capricious, whimsical one, improvisational and erratic, and while the tone changes in the second half, Risser remains true to this basic behavioural trait. Now halting, the music passes through subsequent smaller-scale florid bursts and resonance, for a time developing a fast repetitive sequence but ultimately picking at morsel-sized ideas, as if trying to figure out a way forward. It’s a splendidly counter-intuitive move, in which Rondeau’s diffidence makes one question to what extent his overwhelming earlier confidence was, in fact, the real red herring.


Ēriks Ešenvalds - Shadow
  • Loved it! (19%, 6 Votes)
  • Liked it (16%, 5 Votes)
  • Meh (29%, 9 Votes)
  • Disliked it (19%, 6 Votes)
  • Hated it! (16%, 5 Votes)

Total Voters: 31

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Ēriks Ešenvalds – Shadow

A Shadow

I said unto myself, if I were dead,
What would befall these children? What would be
Their fate, who now are looking up to me
For help and furtherance? Their lives [, I said,]

Would be a volume wherein I have read
But the first chapters, and no longer see
To read the rest of their dear history,
So full of beauty and so full of dread.
Be comforted; the world is very old,
And generations pass, as they have passed,
A troop of shadows moving with the sun;
Thousands of times has the old tale been told;
The world belongs to those who come the last,
They will find hope and strength as we have done.

(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)


Eve Risser - Furakèla
  • Loved it! (20%, 5 Votes)
  • Liked it (36%, 9 Votes)
  • Meh (28%, 7 Votes)
  • Disliked it (4%, 1 Votes)
  • Hated it! (12%, 3 Votes)

Total Voters: 25

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Andrew Norman - Spiral
  • Loved it! (17%, 8 Votes)
  • Liked it (47%, 22 Votes)
  • Meh (26%, 12 Votes)
  • Disliked it (9%, 4 Votes)
  • Hated it! (2%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 47

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